Two-level lift gate - Part 1 of 4 (criteria)

 In the period January through April 2019, I posted a series of seven articles about the design, construction and operation of what I call my "No Duck Mo" which is a Free-mo module ("mo") containing a swing-up lift bridge so people can pass through a Free-mo layout without having to duck underneath the modules ("no duck").

In March & April 2020 I introduced my current basement layout, the Wascana Canyon Railway ("WCR"). The WCR consists of three levels, the lower being along the wall and the middle and upper levels are along three walls and connect into a loop about 2/3 of the way down the room. Here are the track diagrams for the middle and upper levels:



Both levels have what is described as a "two-level lift gate". This means I was challenging myself to design and construct a new version of my No-Duck-Mo but this time it needed to have two levels which opened and closed simultaneously.

Design Criteria

I set out to design this with the following "must-haves" in mind:
  1. Both gates must lift and lower simultaneously and lock safely into the raised position when the gate is lifted.

  2. Resistance to the force of gravity. Two gates, each of which would be about 30 inches long and around 11 inches wide, would be heavy because not only are there are two of them but they must also be sufficiently robust to resist sagging, twisting or warping. I wanted to be able to simply give the open gates a slight push to begin lowering gently without slamming shut. This is also a safety feature to avoid the gates smashing hard onto someone's head in the event that the gates become unlatched from their raised position while someone is walking through the opening.

  3. Flawless alignment of rails.

  4. Reliable track power to rails on both decks (the lower level is double track mainline and the upper level is single track) including power cutoff to 40 cm (1.3 feet) of rail on either side of the gate when it is open to prevent trains from falling into the abyss.

  5. Mechanical barriers that automatically close when the gate is opened and open when the gate is closed, again for the safety of rolling stock and to protect fragile egos, mine included.

  6. Warning lights to attract attention when the gate is open.
In future posts, I shall outline how I achieved all of the above in my design. I completed construction in the winter of 2019/20 and my two-level lift gate has been working flawlessly ever since.

Continued in Part 2 of 4.


Voltage Any Way You Like

My modelling projects involving electrical components require a certain voltage value which invariably differs from whatever power supply I happen to have on hand. For example, the Arduino microcontrollers I use require 5 volts of regulated power if they are powered directly to their 5-volt inputs.

Over the years I have made my own voltage regulator circuits but always run up against the issue of wasted heat which needs to be drawn away from the voltage regulator using a heat sink and, even then, I worry about the potential fire hazard.

Not long ago I was listening to an episode on Larry Puckett's YouTube channel called Model Railroading With The DCC Guy. Larry makes frequent posts on a variety of topics, most of them electronic, and does a good job of explaining everything in layman's terms.

Larry's episode 120 covered the use of buck converters. These are little circuit boards that convert one DC voltage to another. The desired voltage is set using an onboard potentiometer which is turned with a small screwdriver. I ordered a batch of 10 from Amazon for C$19.99 and free shipping, so the per-item cost was C$2.00.



As you can see this one will use any DC voltage from 3V to 40V and reduce it to 1.5V to 30V. and it can handle up to 3 amps which is more than enough for most of our projects.

Here is a picture of one hooked up to a 9-volt battery. The voltage has been adjusted to 5 volts. The adjustment is very precise and allows for adjustments of 1/100 of a volt which is more precise than what I need. To run Arduinos on my model railroad I will be powering these from the 12 volt DC regulated power supply that is present under all of my benchwork. When connected to an Arduino these buck converters product no heat detectable by my finger.


From my search of Amazon and eBay it is clear that these can be purchased in many different configurations including those that can boost voltage.

Lytton Catwalk in British Columbia's Fraser Canyon

On a recent trip through British Columbia in September 2020 my wife and I came across a very interesting railway bridge at Lytton which is a few kilometres north of the more famous Cisco bridges in the Fraser Canyon. The Cisco bridges get all the glory but the bridge at Lytton which is crossed by the Canadian National Railway mainline has a pedestrian catwalk attached to the north side of the bridge. The bridge is open to the public and is high above the Fraser River just south of the confluence of the Thompson and Fraser Rivers.

My wife and I walked from the east to the west side of the river across the catwalk, much to her consternation. She was a little distressed at looking through the steel grating beneath her feet at the Fraser River which rushes below. The swift-flowing river with its numerous huge swirling eddies can be easily heard. She was even more distressed at me suggesting that it would be fun if a train would cross the bridge while we were on the catwalk, a suggestion I made when we were half-way across!

I found the location quite easily by Googling it. On the map you will see that the parking lot is at the end of River Street. However, at first we drove right past River Street and ended at a dead end because River Street is more akin to a back alley than a typical residential street.

I hope that next time I am in that area I can hang around long enough to see a train pass over the bridge while I am on the catwalk. The railway traffic patterns were rather messed up the day we were there because the day before 20 cars of a potash train had derailed near Hope, BC. As a result, we saw a number of trains along the Fraser River Canyon that day but very few of them were moving.

In the following pictures, you will notice a distinct haze in the air. This is smoke that had blanketed southwest BC and Alberta from the forest fires on the west coast of the US. After having experienced this smoke for the previous five days our eyes were burning and our throats sore from the smoke. Even though we were wearing our COVID-19 masks over our noses and masks everywhere we went that we weren't alone, they were no match for the pervasive smoke. On the ferry ride from Vancouver Island to the mainland, the smoke was so thick that we could see no land for the two-hour sailing.







Ballasting turnouts or tight spots

In my last post, I promoted an idea for avoiding track cleaning by Joe Fugate, publisher of Model Railroad Hobbyist Magazine. Another idea of Joe's that I have found extremely useful pertains to applying ballast around turnouts, in particular around the moveable points. In this area, it is critical that no adhesive or ballast gets in between the moving parts.

The solution is to apply full-strength adhesive between the ties using a micro-brush. In this way the adhesive goes where you want it and not where it would go if it was watered down in the way ballast cement is applied on the rest of the track. Once the adhesive is in place simply scatter ballast on top and leave it to dry. Once dry, vacuum away the loose ballast and you will be left with ballast in only the places you wanted it and not stuck to the moving parts. Ballast can then be added to the track either side of this area, wet with isopropyl alcohol or "wet water" (water with a few drops of dish detergent to reduce surface tension) followed by a diluted mix of your favourite ballast adhesive.

Here are pictures showing the technique:





This technique is also useful around holes left around feeder-wires. Apply the glue and ballast in these areas so that the more watery mixture of ballast adhesive applied later on will not result in adhesive dripping through to the underside of the layout. It also works well on the track at the ends of Free-mo modules where you have installed PC board end tie plates milled into the shape of railroad ties. This technique prevents ballast from sticking to those places where you don't want it.

Never clean track again

Large quantities of printer's ink, as well as bits and bytes in more recent decades, has been used to describe innumerable solutions to cleaning model railroad track. This has included ideas on numerous liquids for track cleaning, abrasive pads and several designs of track-cleaning rolling stock.

One idea that I came across several years ago was graphite. The suggestion was to purchase a stick of 4B pure graphite from an art supply store, such as Michael's. A graphite "lead" pencil is no good because the graphite in such pencils has been combined with a type of clay to reduce breakage when sharpened to a pencil point. The article said to use the graphite sparingly, just in a few places around the layout, and all of your track cleaning problems will be solved. I tried this and it worked - perfectly. There was no problem with traction degrading because the amount of graphite used is extremely small.

One of my favourite model railroad authors is Joe Fugate, publisher of the excellent digital publication called Model Railroad Hobbyist Magazine. Joe has written several articles about track cleaning. Recently I was listening to a video by Joe on Trainmaster's TV which is an excellent service I subscribe to. Joe's explanation made so much sense that I now understand why graphite is so effective.

Joe Fugate pointed out that the grime that accumulates on the model railroad track is mainly caused by what he calls "micro-arcing". Below is a picture of a railroad wheel on a rail. On a model railroad, it is this wheel-to-rail contact that completes the electrical circuit to both sides of the locomotive motor as well as any other electrics and electronics that are on board. As a wheel rotates along the rail there are minute sparks or "arcs" that occur at the point of contact (see the yellow star below).



These arcs are much too small to see with the naked eye, even in a darkened room but they are there. Similarly, if you complete an electrical circuit by touching two conductors to the ends of an AA battery there is a minute arc which again is not visible to the naked eye but it is there. Repeated micro arcs between the wheels and rails deposit a layer of metal oxide on the rails and wheels.

Joe's presentation went on to point out that the commutators on virtually all motors (aside from brushless motors of course) are made of graphite because this creates very little arcing compared with metal-to-metal contact. Even the arcing that does occur between the graphite motor brushes and the armature does not create a metal oxide because it is not a metal-to-metal arc.

The advice given in the presentation was to take the above-noted 4B stick of graphite and rub it very gently along the inner corner of the rails. This location helps keep the graphite off the railhead which reduces any potential traction issues, combined with the fact that it must be applied very sparingly - so sparingly that it is not visible. Here is a picture of how to apply:


After listing to Joe Fugate's presentation I now understand why I have had so much success with my track from using graphite. If you don't read Model Railroad Hobbyist or subscribe to Trainmasters TV I recommend you give these a try.